»Character Thieves« by Oliver Sieber
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Oliver Sieber, Character Thieves
Schaden.com feat. Kobayashi/Böhm Publishers
With a text by Mariko Takeuchi, japanese/english
24 x 33 cm, 72 pages incl. 67 colour plates
Text by Mariko Takeuchi
You may have hear of the term "cosplay", (short for costume-play) through the media, or you have seen them in person somewhere in the city. However, not so many people know what this is all about...
"Cosplayer" (costume-player), people who dress like a character from Manga, Animation or video games. The source says that there are more than 10,000 "Cosplayers" in Japan and the population is growing internationally. More than 2,000,000 photographs are uploaded on a Cosplay community website, "Cure". World Cosplay Summit was established in 2003, and the number of participating nations is increasing. Cosplay is now internationally popular, however, this data does not help us to understand what Cosplay really is unless you have a chance to interact with Cosplayer.
I was teaching a photography class at the art school in Tokyo, and one day, a student brought her Cosplay photograph to the class. She went to a Cosplay event and took some photographs of herself and her friends. In the photographs, they dressed like anime characters. She proudly told us that she made the costume by herself. Taking photographs of each other and making costume is a common practice in the culture. I was speechless when I saw the photographs. People were oddly posed and stood with the pride in front of the camera in the cheaply hand made costumes. The photographs were taken from the sharp angle and perspective that gives dramatic effect just like an action figure. It was far from just snap shots. The person in the photograph looks immature at the same time, strangely confident. I did not have any knowledge about the anime characters that they are dressed as, or any of the background of these characters. No one in the class was familiar with this culture and they started to ask questions. Why and how she started to do Cosplay and what interested her about taking these photographs. Which one does she likes the most? However, these questions were irrelevant and confusing for her because these photographs were meant to be exchanged exclusively within the Cosplay community, and shown to the people who have common understanding of the culture. These photos were taken for email exchanges and posting on the Cosplay Internet websites.
It is easy to criticize or analyze the characteristics of Japanese subculture, its optimistic ideal word and how this imaginary world is separated from the real life. And these photographs are not even technically qualified as art. However, somehow, I felt there is something else in these photographs that are beyond my understanding, which will never be understood by outsiders including myself and other students. There was a huge language gap between "them" and us. We cannot communicate with Cosplayers without the "code" that they use to understand each other. They have so much more care into this Cosplay. This much care almost pushes away the others who are outside of the circle. Unless you understand the "code" with many layers of meanings and reasoning, you would never be a part of them. Obviously, it is impossible to understand the dynamics of the whole Cosplay culture by listening to a few hour-long presentations.
Narcissus loved the reflection of himself on the surface of the water. However, these cosplayers crossed the line and jumped into the water, and then became the reflections themselves. Only the difference is that what they see in the water is not the reflection of themselves, but other Cosplayers. Those who crossed the line, only crossed it to share the world under the water. When one loves another as much as oneself, and actually wants to become an other self.
In fact, the student confessed that there is a great difference between people who just read Manga and people dress like Manga. Even if you like manga, if you do not do Cosplay, you will never share that same love. It is different from what music lover share with the music players.
Yasumasa Morimura, whose work is about becoming some one he loves. Morimura' s works are known for the photographs of him dressed like Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot. Morimura claims that becoming his lovers is the way of expressing his love. However, the Cosplayer photographs would never be called art because their audiences are only themselves. In spite of the excitement that they share among themselves, it only exist on their website, and that is all they have.
Oliver Sieber published a book called "Character Thieves", in which there is a series Cosplay photographs. Sieber's photographs do not have the expression of the passion that Cosplayers share, but there is some common language we can share. There are some elements that make us feel little more related to Cosplayers in Sieber's photographs. One of the reasons is that these photos are taken in the every day real life situations. They were taken in their bedrooms, kitchen, living room, or at the park near by. There is nothing special about locations. If you look closer, there are some details and evidence that tells you about their cultural and social background, but they are just in their basic every day living environment. Cosplayers would never take photographs in their living spaces. They are often taken at the social gatherings and events. Cosplay photographs can only be "complete" when the pose and the background/situation all match with the costume. Another word, the living spaces are just for the preparation for the event, the place for sowing the costumes, reading and studying Manga and about the characters. They spend much time in the space to prepare.
Cosplay is one of the most known Japanese subculture worldwide. "Sub"culture is not necessary opposite of the "main"culture. "Sub" does not mean smaller population cultural phenomenon. Animation, video games and Manga is multi-million dollar corporation businesses that attract many different generations. This is not a Counterculture either. Although the Cosplay look different from what we see in the daily lives, this culture is directly connected to our consumed culture. Cosplayers lifelines are connected ours, and we share the same society. However, the same time, there are some tensions between the Cosplay life style and everyday society. Especially in the suburban and rural areas of Japan, Cosplayers often hide their hobby from their families and professional colleagues. Although Manga is very popular, Cosplay is still "over the top" behavior. The Cosplayers from the rural area often take the hand made costumes in their suitcases and change into their costume in the public bathrooms and go to the event. Then after the event, they change back into their regular clothing in the bathroom before they go home. This is the life of Cosplayers. This real life version of the Cosplay does not necessarily translate into the exotic "Cool Japan" theme outside of Japan.
Sieber brings the Cosplayer back into the every day environment under the natural day light. This could be a very unusual situation for Cosplayers. The costumes look out of place in the house, but this everyday environment is in fact where the Cospalyers actually belong. By taking photographs of the Cosplayers in these real life situations, we see them differently. The figure looks isolated and does not belong. By placing Cosplayers within this real life situation, we see them in different way, yet we must admit that it is odd when we see these two different worlds in one frame, even when we know that this place is where this Cosplayer lives and spends most of their time reading manga and watching anime. When this person becomes a Cosplayer and stands in front of the camera, in a costume, in the room, this person looks lost and absent. They do not pose as an anime character like they do at the Cosplay events. They do not know what to do in this costume in this dull reality within some apartment complex. They look like an angel lost in this real world. Who knows what this angel dreams about in this ordinary everyday life.
Sieber has been producing many series of portraits since the end of 90's. "Skins Mods Teds" is taken portraits of young people who belong to youth-cultures which are Skinheads and Mods culture, "Boy meets Girls" is about transsexual young people, and "Mici" and "j_subs" are about young punk in Germany and Japan, he has been studying the matter of group individuality and identities of young people through the group being out of the main current social position. The method of photographing is comparatively consistent, bust shots in light grey or white are subdued for the most part. An subject's eyes look away from a camera, you can stare at and inspect the details of it without shrinking from subject's eyes, and it makes an impression on you.
In fact, it is important to influence as one of the properties of photography whether an object stares at a camera or not. If an object stares at a camera, you would feel that your eyes met whether you wanted to or not. It is needless to say that this sense of getting a look from a photograph is the conception of the basic of confusing people's general interest "punctum" which Roland Barthes developed in "La Chambre Claire" (you will recall that the beginning of this book starts an episode of the eyes of the portraits of Napoleon's brother.) But, there is one more important property of the photograph that the object stares at the camera. It might contradict, but you can control the object by showing a camera to the object. (otherwise, why are the portraits taken at the concentration camp and the police always made to stare at the camera?) In fact, to make the object to stare at the camera is an action of control that you put the object's eyes down and keep it not to escape from there.
According to Sieber's photographs, most of the objects don't look straight at a camera. That makes it possible some extent to let you stare at the objects, at the same time, you aren't given all of the objects, and you make them to put off some parts of their inside. That is to say, we can realize unbalance of a person who sees and another person who is seen, or oneself and others. The interest about the eyes of the photograph is well informed of Sieber's works is expressed clearly the most in the portrait series of blind people in recent years called "Blind". There are people who have been blind from birth, who lost their eyesight by an accident, and who have been gradually losing their eyesight included. In any case, they never look back at us. They don't look at the face of themselves watching by our eyes. By the meaning, it says that we are giving them an one-sidedly look. But, Sieber doesn't just turn a camera to them rudely, and he tries to get along with surprising care and delicacy. By doing that, we ask silently what we can see and what we cannot see in their face at the same time. Now, the "look" or looking at others is not treated an abyss hard to beyond lying between oneself and other as no exist. The reverse of it, was it possible to get closer to an abyss hard to beyond between them? But, we usually settled it with a vague explanation using the words of "individuality" and "affection" On the other hand, Seiber's works, as this photography, are filled with consideration for the eyes being apt to tend to be violence and deeply respect for the stranger's face.
In "Character Thieves", two important interests which are the identity in youth-culture and the eyes in the photograph flow into it. As mentioned above, the Cosplayers have been developing to be tied up with a media as a photography, it is extremely photogenic. So, anyone could imagine easily that you the "cool" and "unusual" photographs emphasized originality and uniqueness can be taken if the photographs of the costume players are taken in the studio. Sieber takes out that this unfamiliar Cosplay subject as relatable figures by placing them back in everyday life. There, we can see Cosplayers as one of us, sort of speak. Sieber successfully brings anxiety and loneliness in desolated today's contemporary life style that you see the similar problems through the work of Philip-Lorca Dicorcia and Lise Sarfati.
Most of us never understand about Cosplayers, but we would never understand anyone completely. "I" do not see myself with my own eyes. Only the others could see "I". Perhaps, others are others because they can only see "I" through their eyes. Cosplayers are often treated as someone "special", but Sieber connects them, in his photographs, very carefully with another part of their lives which is not special. There we witness the relationships between "them" and "us", subject and object. They could be lonely dull reality and dreams. Sieber's photographs are in a way portraits of urban angels, and the same time portraits of ourselves. In the end, we are the observers who are looking these photographs as reflection of ourselves, just like Narcissus was looking at his reflection on the water.